Education Special Report

Jeb Bush and Florida's Education Success

Jeb Bush and Florida's Education Success

By Carl M. Cannon - September 21, 2011

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Rick Perry’s emergence as a prominent Republican presidential contender has confounded some conservative intellectuals, especially those who care about education reform, and not because of Perry’s mediocre grades while attending Texas A&M -- or because of his education policies as governor in Austin.

When the 2012 presidential campaign season began, some GOP insiders thought their best candidate, all things being equal, might be the former governor of another Southern state. Jeb Bush was an unalloyed conservative and proven vote-getter who’d presided over a strong economy in a big state while posting a record of legislative achievement so impressive that his nickname was “King Jeb.”

His name was the two-term Florida governor’s problem when it came to any possible aspirations of national office: Not the Jeb part, or even the showy modifier, but rather the surname. It was universally believed, apparently by Jeb Bush himself, that four years wasn’t enough time to counteract the “Bush fatigue” attendant to his oldest brother’s last year in the White House.

Unexpectedly, however, a governor who walks and talks a lot more like George W. Bush than his own brother and who served under Bush in Austin has emerged as the 2012 presidential front-runner.

It’s probably too late for Jeb Bush to reconsider his 2012 options, but it’s certainly not too late to give his record in Tallahassee a second look. And in no area did Bush have more of an impact than in education policy.

“Governor Bush has been at the forefront of education reform,” said Michael W. Grebe, president of the Bradley Foundation, which has donated generously to education reform projects, while honoring Jeb Bush earlier this year. “During his administration and since, Florida students have made incredible gains.”

Today, improving America’s public schools is a cause ostensibly embraced by both political parties. Twelve years ago, however, when Jeb Bush became governor of the Sunshine State, it was a partisan minefield -- and there was little reason to believe that government could turn things around quickly or decisively. That’s what seems to have happened in Florida, however, with ripple effects that have spilled out across the country.

Jeb Bush never criticizes George W. Bush publicly -- or, as far as anyone knows, privately -- on education reform or anything else. But it is a matter of public record that Jeb Bush was vowing to create a public school system in Florida “to ensure that no child is left behind” before that became the inspiration for federal legislation. In addition, Jeb Bush has long been on record as believing that the most effective place for school reform is the states, not the federal government.

“By federalizing education policy you create resistance at the classroom, school, school district -- and even the state level,” he told the Harvard Political Review earlier this year. “I think you’re getting more dynamic results by having the states play the policy role and holding local school districts accountable for actual learning.”

This is what happened in Florida, with eye-opening results. It didn’t happen in a day, it didn’t even happen in a decade, and the difficulty in sustaining the gains made in lower grades through high school in Florida shows that no one in Tallahassee should be resting on their laurels. But the educational successes there were tangible, and measurable, and they have been copied by several other states.

Standards and Accountability

In 1998, Florida’s public educational system was ranked among the worst in the nation. Its high school graduation rate was an appalling 52 percent; 47 percent of its fourth-graders were functionally illiterate, according to nationally administered tests. To address this crisis, the state had adopted a rigorous set of criteria for each grade called the Sunshine State Standards, and established a system of tests, the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT), administered to fourth-, fifth-, eighth- and 10th-graders to see if students were living up to them.

In other words, when Jeb Bush and Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan were inaugurated, there was a consensus in Florida, not only about keeping kids in school longer, but also about what they should learn when there. There was no consensus, though, on how to reach those goals. This is where the new governor and his running mate came in.

Their first major legislative initiative, passed swiftly by the Florida legislature, was called the Florida A-Plus Plan. It’s primary features included the following four provisions: Making the FCAT an annual exercise so that each student is tested each year; assign letter grades, A through F, to every school in the state based on academic performance; requiring D and F schools to produce a detailed plan to improve performance -- and providing state money to help; and allowing students from chronically underperforming schools the option of transferring to any public school in their district, or an adjacent district, or even attending a private school at state expense.

Bush and his team followed up in subsequent years with a plethora of other innovations. These included the always-controversial merit pay to retain the best teachers; changes in teacher certification procedures designed to attract instructors with a high grasp of the subject material (especially in math); ending “social promotions,” especially from third grade to fourth; and subsidizing PSAT tests for high school students from needy families. A third wave of policies expanded scholarships for needy kids, funded charter schools and “virtual” schools, and opened a number of pre-kindergartens programs across the state.

The “voucher” provision was eventually ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court, but not until 2006 -- when it had achieved much of its desired goal, which was to make public school teachers and administrators more accountable. One paradox of the Florida experience is that although teacher unions fought Bush fiercely (and are continuing to fight such changes), the classroom teachers themselves seem to have risen to the occasion -- and not only in Florida.

Since 1994, the reading scores of fourth-graders in this country, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, have risen steadily. “Simply stated, poor and minority students are achieving at dramatically higher levels today than they were two decades ago -- in some cases two or three grade levels higher,” writes education reformer Michael J. Petrilli. And Florida, as noted, helped lead the way.

The highlights include:

-- In 1998, Florida’s fourth-graders scored at the bottom nationally in NAEP scores in reading and math. By 2009, they had scored above the national average in both categories.

-- Florida’s fourth-grade Hispanic students equaled or surpassed the performance of all students in 31 states.

-- Fourth-grade African American students in Florida outperform African American students in all but three states in NAEP math tests.

-- Low-income Florida elementary school students of all races rank near the top nationally in math.

n High school graduation rates increased 21 percent, even as the requirements got tougher.

-- Some 38,000 Florida high school students were taking Advanced Placement exams for college credit a decade ago. Offering merit pay of up to $2,000 for teachers who get students to take -- and pass -- AP exams helped boost this number to 157,000.

-- The number of African American and Latino students passing AP tests increased 365 percent.

For skeptics who believe that standardized testing sucks the creativity out of the learning process, Jeb Bush always had a stock answer: “What gets measured, gets done.”

In the early years, things did not always go swimmingly. The teacher unions made opposing Bush a crusade, even mortgaging their own building to raise money to support his 2002 opponent in his re-election bid. Bush weathered that challenge, but gains at the middle school level didn’t really kick in until his last two years in office, leading to some testy press conferences, as his top education adviser, Patricia Levesque, recalled.

In the end, it would be nice to say that Florida’s impressive results speak for themselves, but it’s never quite that simple in the politics of education.

Criticism continues to come from the unions and their comrades in academia and the press. Some of it is kind of goofy, such as the assertion that ending social promotion helped boost test scores simply because some of the fourth-graders taking the NAEP test are one year older. (Did they learn to read just because they got taller?) Other criticisms have more weight. Does “teaching to the test” rob educators of the spontaneity that helps produce a creative and dynamic learning environment? Jeb Bush’s assurances to the contrary, that’s a legitimate concern. Others protest that giving school straight letter grades based on the test scores of its pupils places an undue burden on teachers and administrators working in the poorest neighborhoods, a complaint that seems valid on its face.

In any event, several states have followed Florida’s lead, with Bush serving as an unofficial consultant in his role as chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

“It’s hard to argue that Jeb Bush hasn’t been a pacesetter for the rest of the nation on education reform issues,” says Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. “Governors of both parties have borrowed bits and pieces of his agenda because it was extremely practical.”

In a column for Time magazine, Andrew J. Rotherham, who served in President Clinton’s domestic policy office, ranked Bush as one of the most interesting players in 2011 in the field of education. “Florida made gains, no question, in his NAEP scores,” Rotherham told RCP. “It’s why all these Republican governors consider him the education oracle.”

So, in the end, what are the lessons of the Florida approach to public education? Here are three:

First, this is not a field for dilettantes. Jeb Bush formed his first education foundation in 1994, when he lost his first gubernatorial campaign to Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles. And during his successful 1998 campaign, he punctuated his promise to be the “education governor” by choosing as his running mate a man who had been a school teacher and school administrator. The actual name of the initial legislation was the Bush/Brogan A+ Plan for Education.

“Together, let’s send an unmistakable message for our children: In Florida, failure is no longer an option,” Bush proclaimed in his first major speech as governor, his 1999 State of the State address. “I will never waiver in my dedication to transforming our public schools into centers of excellence.”

Second, bipartisanship and cooperation are preferable, if elusive. Asked during a brief interview with RCP earlier this year if the teacher unions are supportive of his reform efforts, Bush replied bluntly, “No, I don’t think they are. The union is one of the principle barriers to moving to a child-centered educational system.”

This chasm between Democratic unions and Republican governors has only widened since Bush left office. In Florida, he sought to bypass collective bargaining agreements with regard to merit pay -- but he did not attempt to bust the unions. In Wisconsin and other states, Republican governors have mounted a direct assault on collective bargaining rights for teachers and other public employees, a stance which can only engender implacable opposition.

It’s easy in such an environment to forget that Florida’s gains took place over three different administrations: It was under Democrat Chiles that the state set learning standards; it was under Republican Bush that a host of reforms were initiated; and it was Charlie Crist, a political independent by the time he left the governor’s office, who helped provide the fine-tuning and follow-through that kept the gains in place.

But that leads to the third lesson: Education isn’t free, and neither is education reform. One of the reasons for Jeb Bush’s success was that he threw so much stuff at the education establishment -- new money as well as new programs -- that the keepers of the status quo had a hard time keeping up with him.

In one sense this has happened again in Florida under Crist’s replacement, Rick Scott. Earlier this year, Scott ushered through the legislature a bill effectively gutting tenure for new teachers. This was accompanied by a provision requiring teachers to pay 3 percent of their pay into their pension plan. Without any accompanying increase in pay, the new practice is essentially a 3 percent pay cut, something not lost on the unions, which are suing the governor.

For the most part, Bush and his Tallahassee-based education foundation have supported Scott’s efforts. But a decade ago, while defending the concept of merit pay, he had this to say: “Teachers’ salaries are going to have to jump in order to retain teachers in a tight job market.”

The job market is no longer tight, and the federal stimulus money from last year that governors used for schools and other programs is mostly gone. All of which raises a disquieting question: Can education reform thrive in an era of scarce resources? 

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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